The Defence Ministry has reportedly given the final clearance for the much awaited M777 howitzer guns deal. The deal for the purchase of 145 US Ultra-Light Howitzers from BAE Systems will cost around Rs 5,000 crore subject to clearance from the Finance Ministry and Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). That the deal is the first for guns after the Bofors only adds weight to how important such an acquisition will be for the Indian Army, which is struggling with insufficient artillery. The M777 Howitzer is a 155mm 39 calibre towed gun.
According to BAE Systems, the manufacturer of the gun, the M777 is a highly portable gun in the defence arsenal of any country. The gun is portable by land, sea and air. This means that the system can be easily moved and re-deployed as per the defence forces need. The gun has a maximum unassisted range of 24.7 km and an assisted range of 30 plus km. BAE claims that the gun can be used to fire 5 rounds per minute for up to 2 minutes. It can easily be lifted by helicopters like the Chinook, which India has already ordered from Boeing. According to a PTI report, 25 guns will come to India in a fly away condition from BAE. The rest 120 will be assembled in India at the proposed Assembly Integration and Test facility for the weapon system. For this, BAE is tying up with the Mahindra group.
How important is the acquisition of the M777 for India? Says, Ankur Gupta, Vice President- Aerospace & Defence at Ernst Young India, “This is the first major artillery procurement that has (pending CCS approval) successfully been completed in over three decades. Coupled with the previously signed Chinook contract, our force preparedness levels in the Eastern sector will be significantly enhanced over the coming decade.”
Talking about the edge that India will get, especially with respect to China, Colonel KV Kuber, Independent Consultant Defence and Aerospace says, “The Indian Army needs modern artillery and the M777 is comparable to the Bofors in terms of performance. It is light-weight, in fact it weighs half of the Bofors. The M777 will help greatly in surgical strikes and interdiction operations. These types of guns are meant for the mountains because they can clear heights easily.” “They will act as a formidable threat against China in terms of on ground mischief. The guns make use of advanced aerospace metallurgy. The C-17 can take up to 3 M777s and the C-130 J can fit in 2 of these guns. They can also be airlifted with the help of the Chinooks that India is set to get. In that sense, the guns will fit well in the overall scheme of things as well,” he explains, adding that the M777 has already been tested and seen in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. “They (M777) are also used by the US, Canada and Australia. BAE is expected to create a decent eco-system for the Indian industry in terms of tie-ups,” he adds.
According to Kuber, while the M777 will certainly be a much-needed boost for the Indian Army, there is more that needs to be done to fill the void. “Going ahead, to fill the void completely, the government should look at inducting indigenous guns like the Dhanush and those being developed by the private sector companies like L&T, Bharat Forge,” he advises.
Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd), Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) laments the fact that the firepower of the Indian Army has been ignored area for three decades. “The M777 Howitzer guns will form one-sub part of the modernisation drive for artillery in the Indian Army. Since 30 years now, there were no new artillery guns for the Indian Army, so the modernisation of artillery is way behind schedule,” he says.
“There are two sides to your defence power, one is firepower and the other is the ability to manoeuvre. Now, in case of China and to an extent Pakistan, there are restrictions on the ability to manoeuvre because of the mountain terrain. With Pakistan, you cannot manoeuvre much in the plains either because of its low nuclear threshold. So, one must then ramp up the firepower on the ground,” Kanwal tells FE Online. “But, in all these years, Indian Army’s firepower has been neglected,” he rues. “The normal mindset is that if a product does not meet 100% GSQR (General Staff Qualitative Requirements), then it is not procured. For the modernisation of the artillery, even if some products meet 95% GSQR, then we should go ahead and get them,” he adds. “As far as the M777 is concerned, it will help and make a difference primarily with China, and not so much against Pakistan, given its advantages in the mountain terrain,” he concludes.
India has in the last few months expedited several key defence acquisitions and deals including Rafale, S-400 Triumf missiles, Kamov helicopters, stealth frigates and improved BrahMos missile system. All this assumes major significance in light of India’s growing tensions with Pakistan and China. While the final Defence Ministry approval for the M777 shows the government’s intent to enhance India’s defence capabilities, much more needs to be done to add formidable firepower, especially when it comes to the Indian Army.